Oh well, onward and upward.
Does this sound familiar–“When your brother sins against you, go to him and tell him his fault…”? We all recognize this passage from Matthew 18:15-17; it’s the one about church discipline. Many churches are rediscovering this text, and have begun to practice what Jesus preached here. Dr. Mark Dever has gone so far as to insist that church discipline is one of the nine marks of a healthy church.
But isn’t it unloving? I mean, it seems like the most un-Christlike thing to do to kick somebody out of the church. Just because they sinned? Aren’t we all sinners? Who are we to judge? Church discipline is bad. It’s very bad. It’s very, very baaaaa-d.
Church Discipline is About Sheep.
How many of us have actually read all of Matthew 18? Do you even know what the context is? Do you know what parable comes just before Jesus’ teachings on church discipline? It’s a story about sheep. Baaaa.
What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
We are all familiar with this parable, but most of us know Luke’s version. Here in Matthew, Jesus is not teaching about seeking out people who are lost; he is talking about seeking a wayward disciple. Matthew 18 began with Jesus’ disciples clamoring for first place in the Kingdom. In response, Jesus showed them that they were in fact as helpless and defenseless as little children. They were in constant danger from stumbling blocks, pitfalls, traps, and temptations from without and from within.
However, as Jesus says in verse 14, God is not willing to allow even one of his little ones to perish. The Good Shepherd seeks out his wandering disciple and brings him back with great rejoicing. The story of the 99 and the one sheep in Matthew 18 is a story about the immense value of just one disciple in the eyes of God. Just one wandering disciple inspires this kind of passionate pursuit, discovery, and rejoicing.
Every sheep has value. Every single one.
We Seek Wandering Sheep.
Only after we realize our frailty as God’s children, our propensity to stumble from the way, and our eternal value in the eyes of God can we fully comprehend Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-17. Church discipline is not about judging other believers. It’s not about kicking people out of the church. It’s about the Shepherd searching out his wandering sheep.
Jesus’ teachings show that he will use his body, the Church, to seek out his wandering sheep. As a sheep with a tendency to wander, the best thing for us is a church full of humble believers who will chase after us. We confront our brother who is in sin because we have the heart of Christ. We are not willing to watch even one brother or sister wander away from Jesus. We will fight tooth and nail, we will search far and wide, we will do whatever it takes to make sure not one sheep wanders too far from the flock.
The believer who insists on going it alone–who thinks he doesn’t need the Church–hasn’t yet come to grips with how prone he is…well, how does that song go–“prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” A Christian who chooses not to join a local church is essentially telling Jesus: “When I wander away, don’t bother to chase after me.”
The Sheep Hear His Voice.
Jesus said in John 10:27–“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” An emphasis in Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:15-17 is listening. At each stage of confrontation, there is the option for the brother to listen or to refuse to listen. As the stages progress from one voice, to two or three voices, to an entire church’s worth of voices, the Shepherd is beckoning his sheep to return to him.
Jesus’ sheep will respond and return when they hear their Shepherd calling. However, those who are not his sheep will continue to wander away from the flock. They will refuse to listen, covering their ears when they are confronted with the words of Christ. What shall a church do if a sheep insists on wandering away from the Shepherd and Overseer, the only Savior who can protect them from sin and death?
When a Church follows Jesus’ instructions, but a brother refuses to listen even to the passionate and heart-broken call of the church body, has God lost one of his? The truth is, a sheep who wanders away from the Shepherd and refuses to listen to his voice is not one of His Sheep. Jesus instructs us to treat them as a Gentile and a tax-collector. We don’t pretend they are a Christian; we lovingly call them to repent and believe!
What Is More Unloving than Church Discipline…
It may seem unloving to put someone in unrepentant sin out of the church.
But I’ll tell you what’s more unloving: telling a person they are a Christian when they really aren’t.
I’ll tell you what’s more unloving: letting a person wander away from the life-giving Savior Jesus Christ into disobedience without saying anything.
I’ll tell you what’s more unloving: letting people go their whole life thinking they are “safe” because they’re name is on the church roll at your church, when they are actually children of wrath in need of a Savior.
If your church truly values every member, every last one, then you will not be willing to lose even one of these little ones. Every sheep has to be chased every once and a while.